Richland County officials lauded a decision by Backpage.com to shut down its adult services section, which they say was a major avenue for human traffickers to conduct business.
Backpage.com announced Monday it would shut down access to its adult services section in the United States. The decision came after the release of a Senate subcommittee report that accused the classifieds site of creating a marketplace that makes child sex trafficking easier.
“This decision will have a huge impact on human trafficking and prostitution,” said Sheriff Leon Lott, whose agency has worked nearly 2,000 cases through the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “I applaud that this action is finally being taken. Lives will be saved.”
It was unclear how many of those cases worked by the Sheriff’s Department were connected to Backpage.
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There were 50 charges of trafficking in persons that were closed in state court in 2016, according to the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force annual report released last week by the Attorney General’s Office. Of those, 36 involved victims under the age of 18.
There are 28 trafficking charges currently pending in state court, of which 22 involve minor victims, according to the report. More than half of the pending charges are in Richland County.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina has 12 open cases of human trafficking in federal court, according to the report. The Columbia office convicted two traffickers in 2016.
Backpage has been a “huge” issue in combating human trafficking, according to Vicki Jackson, coordinator of the Richland County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force who said she celebrated the section’s closing.
“They've been able to track some of our girls through their Backpage websites and rescue them through checking them on Backpage,” she said. “It has a lot of our kids under the age of 18 that are being commercially exploited through that page.”
Capt. Heidi Jackson of the Sheriff’s Department victim services division, said law enforcement agencies are developing measures to combat human trafficking online, including tracking the number of people a poster is advertising on sites like Backpage.
“The buyers in these transactions, they're bringing the money to the table,” she said during a Wednesday news conference about local anti-trafficking efforts. “If they're having a more difficult time connecting, that's awesome for us.”
Often, those buyers are paying for sex with girls they don’t know are underage, Jackson said, which could result in the more serious charge of criminal sexual conduct with a minor in addition to prostitution.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.